Featured Stories

Problem gambling — the latest addiction

Gambling addiction programs and prevention campaigns are well-funded in Oregon


by: BILL MINTIENS/SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Tricia Averre, Therapist with Lutheran Community Services

“Society-wide — and especially in Crook County — the majority of people with drug or alcohol addictions feel those are medical conditions that need to be treated, but gambling is a moral decision,” said Tricia Averre, a licensed therapist specializing in gambling addiction at Lutheran Community Services (LCS) in Prineville.

Unlike drug and alcohol addictions, problem gamblers frequently do not see their addiction as something requiring treatment intervention. They see it as something they can or should be able to control.

“I'll frequently hear clients say, 'This is one of my shortcomings. If I just try hard enough, I could stop gambling.' They're not viewing it as a medical addiction because they don't understand all the biological elements of the addiction,” said Averre.

Entrenched in our culture for hundreds of years, gambling is seen as a harmless form of entertainment, not something that can lead you down the path to financial and family ruin.

“It's not well-versed yet in society that gambling addiction functions in our brain just like any other addiction. Physical withdrawal includes headaches, muscular tension, and heightened anxiety,” added Averre.

Alex Bitz, Crook County Prevention Coordinator working with the Commission on Children and Families, understands that it’s sometimes difficult to recognize the problem.

“It’s more subtle (gambling addiction); you have to be able to see the ‘signs’ to identify it. Family, friends, and co-workers are the best people to see the signs of gambling addiction. Unlike substance abuse, where those under the influence may appear intoxicated or ‘high,’ people experiencing problems with gambling usually do not exhibit easily recognizable signs.”

The number of gambling venues in Prineville is large and Crook County’s problem gambling rate similar to those seen across the state.

“There are 29 gambling places in Prineville and 11 of them are online games like video poker. The clients I’ve recently been working with mainly have this addiction. At-home online gambling is not as much of a problem in Crook County because there are so many local places to gamble.”

The Addiction and Mental Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority, in its Gambling Program Evaluation Update — July 1, 2011 — June 30, 2012, reported that the most visible consequences of problem and pathological gambling were the devastating financial impacts on the gambler and the gambler’s family. The average gambling related debt reported by clients was $26,739.

Averre has seen the consequences right here in Crook County.

“I’ve had clients call me from the road having run out of gas on their way to see me for a therapy session. They gambled away their last dollar. I’ve also received calls from spouses saying there's no money for food because the partner gambled it away.”

In the Gambling Program Evaluation Update, 89.6 percent of problem gamblers reported that machine-based gambling was their primary preference followed distantly by cards at 4.1 percent. Females preferred slot/line games and males preferred video poker and cards.

“About three percent of any population is going to be pathological gamblers. I’m estimating that, here in Crook County, we have between 500 and 600 people with gambling problems,” said Averre.

The problem, however, is that very few people seek help.

“The most clients I’ve ever had in treatment at any one time, during my two years here at LCS, is four. We don’t have a Gamblers Anonymous Group here in Prineville which is something we absolutely need,” said Averre.

Mark Luckey, one of the founders of the non-profit Rebel’s Roost in Prineville, a daily meeting place for several anonymous groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, agrees with Averre.

“We provide a safe spot for people to rent for meetings and I’d love to talk with anyone who wants to start up a gamblers anonymous group. We call ourselves the Rebel’s Roost because we’re rebelling against our old way of life.”

“Hitting the bottom,” a term frequently used with other addictions to indicate that someone is ready to change their life, is different with a gambling addict. While there are physical withdrawal symptoms associated with gambling addiction, the larger triggers generally are the emotional, social, legal, financial, and spiritual consequences experienced by the gambler and the gambler’s family.

“At-risk groups include people dealing with other addictions like alcohol and drugs, seniors living in retirement communities (trips to casinos,) the chronically mental ill, and teenagers. There’s no specific demographic for gambling addiction, it crosses all groups,” said Averre.

“Our drug and alcohol clients are at higher risk of adding a gambling addiction because it’s cross-addicting. You get clean from one thing like drugs or alcohol and you pick up a gambling addiction because you don’t realize that gambling works the same way in your brain to cause addiction,” added Averre.

Bitz performs many outreach activities with the youth of Crook County trying to educate them about the dangers of gambling.

“Here are some statistics. 2.7 percent of 11th graders are gambling online; 8.0 percent of 11th graders are playing state lotteries; 14 percent of 11th graders are betting on sports events; and 18.5 percent of 8th graders are gambling on sports.”

“Most kids and parents see it as harmless entertainment but parents and friends need to be aware of this behavior, and other risky behaviors, to see if there’s a problem. Youth in our community that gamble are also more likely to participate in risky behavior down the road.”

Trisha Averre agrees.

“About 15 percent of teenagers overall are addicted to gambling. Poker night, betting on sports games at school, even buying Betta fighting fish so they can bet on the surviving fish. One Central Oregon pet store stopped selling Bettas for this reason, it’s like cock fighting.”

The good news is that the State of Oregon completely funds gambling addiction programs statewide. Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 409.435 created the Problem Gambling Treatment Fund and ORS 461.549 sets aside one percent of the net Oregon State Lottery proceeds annually.

Averre is amazed how well-funded the gambling treatment program is in Oregon.

“A family member of a problem gambler can even come in for treatment without the problem gambler, for instance, if the gambler has gambled-away all their food money. Anything that I, as a therapist, believe would help toward recovery of the addict is funded by Lottery dollars. This can include things like group therapy, medication management, and financial planning.”

On the prevention side the Oregon Lottery developed and operates a “Play Responsibly” campaign, investing approximately 10 percent of their overall marketing budget in problem gambling awareness campaigns that use TV, radio, and print media. These statewide activities remind people that lottery games are for fun and entertainment. They are also used to inform the public and lottery retailers about problem gambling and treatment availability.

The state also runs a Problem Gambling Help-Line (877-MY LIMIT). The Help-Line is staffed 24 hours a day by professional counselors with problem gambling expertise. Callers are informed that problem

gambling treatment services in Oregon are free for them or their families and are completely confidential.

When appropriate, counselors conduct brief assessments and motivational interviews with callers. The counselor then makes referrals based on screening information, clinical judgment, and available resources. In Crook County the referral is to Lutheran Community Services.